The Pains of Forgetting Faces

Accra is UNESCO World Book Capital for 2023. In October, I visited to attend two literary events, PaGya and Labone Dialogues. It’s rare for a city to have huge literary events on back-to-back weekends and this makes me envious of Ghanaians. I planned to write this while still there, but the awesomeness of it all left me exhausted, and the excitement of meeting very many new people (especially very many awesome writers!) in two weeks drained me emotionally (this shit never gets easy) and only today am I sitting down to look back and share my experiences. As I wrote, it occurred to me that I keep forgetting faces. I don’t think it’s prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, which I didn’t know about until a few minutes ago, but this article evolved from a review about Accra’s literary events to a confession that I have trouble remembering faces.

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When Frankie Ediozen (author of a beautifully written memoir, Lives of Great Men. I hope it makes it to the screen like Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight) invited me to the Labone Dialogues, I accepted though I was broke, for Ghana was on my bucket list, and I needed to travel, to relax, a vacation. Its the only opportunity I get to socialize. I’m introverted, like most artists, yet the mild success I’ve had keeps taking me to new countries, and to events where I meet a lot of new people within a very short time. When I’d just started, I was shy, even terrified of attending these events. The impostor syndrome doesn’t make it easier. I’ve learned to smile, a lot, but it gets harder. I find myself impatient with having to introduce myself over and over again, I quickly get bored of small talk, knowing however much I yap at these new faces I’d have forgotten ninety percent of them by the time I get off the plane.

I hate film festivals the most. There is a pressure to socialize and network for the film industry rewards those who easily make friends, those who are loudmouths with smooth tongues to charm their way into the hearts of money people. Film festivals feel like some kind of contest, for there is a competitive atmosphere with an emphasis on pitching, on trying to get deals made, to get the attention of producers and money people and sales agents. It feels like a market where you shout your throat hoarse but no one buys your crap. It’s even hard to meet people for everyone feels big. You have to write emails weeks in advance to those you wish to meet, and you’ll be lucky if they respond with a no. I don’t even know why I keep going to them…. Oh, I know. It’s the way the industry is set up and it sucks us in and we have no option but play along if we want success.

Three people on a stage, two male, one female, discussing. The lady is in black and holds a microphone. A purple backdrop has NYU Accra.
L-R: Martin, Kinna, Dilman, discussing fantastical writing at Labone Dialogues, NYU Accra

Literary events, on the other hand, are soooo much nicer. So much calmer. You are most likely to meet every guest in the event than in a film festival. Of course, they are much smaller, with a much more intimate feel, but also writers tend to be introvert-ish like me, so when we get a chance to go out into the sun we smile our best and be nice, knowing the next day we’ll be back in our dark caves writing about robots and fire-shitting abiba.

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In Ghana, during Labone Dialogues, I sat in a bus next to an agent. I didn’t know she was an agent, and we got into the small talk. It was enjoyable for we talked about writers, big advances for first books and how the author never publishers another book. All the time we talked, I was terrified that I wouldn’t remember her face the next time I met her. I later looked up the festival brochure, I stared hard at her photo, forcing my brain to scan that image, to look for features I could easily remember, but I knew it was hopeless.

You see, I easily forget faces, especially white faces. I know, it sounds racist, but it’s what it is and I don’t know how to deal with it. One time in Marrakesh, Morocco, I met this lady who I had had regular video calls with for like six months. We were doing a thing together, hence the frequent video calls. Then we both go to Morocco to present our thing and we meet for the first time in person, and we go ‘Oh, it’s you! So nice to finally meet you!’ We even have super together, and go our separate ways. In the morning at breakfast, I found myself next to this middle aged white woman, and we did the usual small talk, and then I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m Dilman.’

Yo, you should have seen the blood drain from her face. I should have played it like a real African, you know how we talk to a person for hours without bothering with introductions? At the end, you call each other ‘chief’ and ‘boss’ and ‘bro’. At that breakfast, I wished I had those Ninja smoke balls to vanish. She said, ‘Dilman, I’m B_’ in a tone of voice that was so, so hurt. I avoided her for the rest of the event. I confided to her colleague, knowing word would somehow trickle to her. I think she accepted my apology for we continue to chat via email as if nothing had happened.

Now, each time I meet a person, I’m like, have I meet them before? Should I introduce myself? I should borrow a leaf from Frankie and take a selfie with everyone! It’s worse since the African literary scene is a small space, a little bit intimate, and you meet the same faces over and over again, with each event being like a family reunion. It gives me anxiety, for imagine forgetting your brother’s face! (Trust me, it happened to me once! I hadn’t seen him in over ten years and we ran into each other in the street and I was like, who the F is this guy?)

At PaGya Festival, I saw this lady on stage, and I thought I knew her. The next day, we are eating lunch, and I hear someone shout my name from the other side of the tree (yes, we were in this cool dining place under a tree) I saw a face I thought I recognized. Took me several seconds to place Frankie. He was with Kinna, and that saved me. I might have not remembered her and it would have been fire! Frankie has a distinct face, feels like he is cleanshaven, yet he has a beard…..?

A week later at Labone Dialogues, I knew I’d meet many people I had already met (that family reunion) some ten years earlier, and I was wary. I nearly forgot Zukiswa (The Madams, 2006) because she dyed her hair, but her loud mouth made sure I remember her. She screamed my name from across a crowded dining room. We’d last met in 2018 at her house in Nairobi. But I didn’t expect to forget Troy (founder of Lolwe)’s face. Well, I didn’t expect to see him in Accra, so I wasn’t really paying attention. We first met at the Jalada Festival (was that in 2015?), a traveling event that saw us on a road trip from Nairobi to Kampala, stopping from town to town doing literary things. Then in 2018 we were at a writing workshop in Rwanda, Lake Kivu, were we saw each other every day for about ten days. Now here we were at Labone, and I’m struggling with his face. He now has a beard and a lot more hair as if a disguise from his old life. ‘That’s Troy,’ Remy said, and then the face fell in place.

I could give a lot more examples of faces I forgot. There was Breeze. We first met in 2008 at Durban Film Festival. Many years later, perhaps 2019, I’m in an event in Jinja, Uganda, and I meet someone called Bree, and it’s only after the event that it struck me, that was Breeze! Then, there was the lady who works for an organization that funds one of my projects. That’s the worst nightmare, to forget the face of the person who gives you money. We went on a trip together, to a district in South Western Uganda, and we were there for three days. Then about four or five months later, we ran into each other at an arts event in Kampala, and I’d not only forgotten her face, but also her name. She was not amused, and I fumbled with an excuse, but she did not talk to me for the rest of the event.

I think I have this issue because I avoid eye contact. One of my girlfriends complained about this, and we broke up shortly after. “You never look me in the eye when talking to me!” and to her, it was an indication that I was not really into her. I didn’t know this was a common thing until I joined Mastodon and saw a lot of images hidden behind the content warning eye contact. Any image that had a person looking into a camera, or even a cat, or dog or other pet, would be labelled ‘warning: eye contact’ out of respect for people like me. Though I don’t mind looking into people’s eyes in photographs or films, for I know they are not really looking at me. But in person, I can’t. I should have played blinking games as a kid, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so squirmy when looking at people’s faces.

Subconsciously, I expect everyone to not remember faces, so I get surprised when a ‘stranger’ calls me by name. Yeah, there is that impostor syndrome thing again, making me think no one should really know me. I freaked out when Chris Abani (The Secret History of Las Vegas, 2014) did call me by name. I totally didn’t expect that. We met once in 2015, at Ake Festival, briefly, but he did not remember that. Perhaps he is the kind who studies photos of all delegates before they show up at a festival. I was also surprised when Abubakar (When We Were Fireflies, 2023) called me. We first met in 2015, Ake, and I can’t remember if he came to Uganda later on. I tend to recall being at the National Theater and Ugly Emcee saying something offensive involving Boko Haram just as a Nigerian writer took to the stage, and the writer was pissed off. Was it Abubakar? That might have been 2016 or so, was it at Writivism Festival?

Nii Parkes (Tail of the Blue Bird, 2009) went a step further in freaking me out. He not only called my name but asked, ‘Do you still take photographs?’ Yikes. I’m sure we met only once, in 2013 or so. He came to Uganda for some literary thing, I can’t remember what. I used to carry a camera around back then, in all events as if I’m the official photographer, but why would anyone remember that after ten years?

Perhaps I’m a little too harsh on myself with this memory thing. I perhaps have a good memory. You see, I saw a face at PaGya, and I thought I’d seen it before. ‘Did we meet in Dakar?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she said. She has been to Senegal, but not in 2019 when I went visited Dakar. Yet it nagged me that we had met before. Eventually, I asked, ‘Have you ever been to Uganda?’ And she said ‘Yes’, and then her face fell in place. ‘2014, at a women writer’s something’ I said. ‘Someone cried, and you chased me out of the room.’ Technically, we did not meet. Since I was always taking photos, the Femrite ladies asked me to help them out with this event, but it was a women’s only event, and I was the only man in the room. Then someone started crying, and this lady (the chairperson?) ordered me out to make the crying person feel more comfortable. Now here I was, ten years later, recalling the face of Mamle Kabu.

Yes, sometimes I trust my memory. At PaGya, I saw a lady in the audience, she asked a question during one of the sessions. A week later at Labone Dialogues, she sat beside me, and I said ‘I saw you last week.’ We exchanged the usual small talk, then I introduced myself, and she said, ‘I know you, Dilman. We are in the same book.’ For a moment, I thought my mind had played tricks on me again, but turns we are in the same anthology, Africa Risen, and she is Akotowaa. Aah. I felt silly. She even knew where my story was in that anthology, and here I was, the name not even ringing a bell. Out of shame, I gifted her a copy of my book, A Killing in the Sun. It was idle in my bag and I didn’t want to go back with it, since all the other copies had sold out at the book store. At first she thought I was trying to sell it to her, but she was glad when I said it was free. Hmm, I hope she reads it.

I ran into other writers too, and only later did I realize I had talked to celebrated names. Someone came and asked me to sign a copy of my new book, Where Rivers Go To Die. She said her name was Cheryl. I signed. Then later someone on mastodon asked, ‘Have you met Cheryl Ntumi yet?’ and it struck me who I had talked to. Cheryl S Ntumi (Entwined, 2013). Another lady asked me to sign a book, and I signed Afadua. Turns out she is also a sci-fi writer, but I never connected the dots at that time. She said she was shy, though, and another friend of hers pushed her to the signing table. I totally saw myself in her, and perhaps one day in future she will be in the same situation as me, having to go to many events and struggling to keep pace with all the faces that thrust themselves into her memory.

They were a refreshing two weeks, though. A holiday just when I needed it.


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2 thoughts on “The Pains of Forgetting Faces”

  1. This was really lovely to read. I sat through almost all the events at Labone and found you interesting to watch. You seemed shyest of us all and yes, quite introvertish. 🙂 I had met you earlier in Ake – 2015, if I remember right and it was fun to see you again.
    Perhaps if ever our paths cross, we will share a drink, do small talk on the gift of memory/forgetfulness, crack dry jokes and wander to another time when we might meet again to remember or forget who we are. 🙂

    Thank you for writing this, Dilman. And for all the other work you do on the literary plane.
    – S. Su’eddie Vershima Agema

  2. Ah yes, I’ll make a note in my little brain to look for you in the next lit event I go to, and hope we get that drink! Or we should sweetalk Frankie to invite us to Accra next year again 😀


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